Musicals based on historical events have always been part of the genre; possibly only with the overwhelming success of Hamilton are people outside of the usual musical theater audience taking notice, but history provides a deep well of inspiration for writers looking to cover something based in truth. Seeing what these writers do with history is a particular joy of mine, and the Adirondack Theatre Festival’s production of Nikola Tesla Drops the Beat provides plenty of history, music and dancing, with energy to spare.
Nikola Tesla (Isaac Powell), as a Serbian teen, is ill and has a fevered dream about alternating current, which can modernize electricity. Getting it to the right people proves to be a problem, as Thomas Edison (Jon-Michael Reese) has invented direct current and has no intention of letting a young upstart steal his legacy. With the help of George Westinghouse (Jared Loftin) and the Johnsons (Neil Starkenberg and Kalyn West), a pair of movers and shakers who know the right people, Tesla is able to introduce his idea to the world – what he considers just his first step, as more ideas are coming fast and furious. Edison, however, and others who feel Tesla has wronged them on his way up, will do anything to bury him.
The show owes much to Hamilton and Rent. Descriptions of the music alternate between calling it electronic pop and EDM (there is some rap and hip-hop thrown in) and it shares the non-traditional casting of Hamilton. However, it’s not a rip-off; the show is fresh and fun as well as thought-provoking and heartbreaking.
Powell’s Tesla is powerful and a joy to watch. He’s a talented actor with a strong voice, and very nuanced for one so young – he’s one to watch. We’ll be seeing more of him in bigger venues, I predict. Watching him go from optimistic youth to jaded adult as the truth of how the world works finally sets in for him is hard to take, as he truly brings Tesla to life for the audience. Reese’s Edison is not your textbook Edison, but Edison as seen through the lens of a millennial – a showboat, a rockstar of his era, and a dangerous man to cross. Reese’s energy and physicality were unparalleled. Brook Wood, as J.P. Morgan, has a voice to bring down the house and a coiled sensuality that put all eyes on her every time she stepped foot on stage.
The lighting design was masterful – and what else can you expect from a show about electricity? A bank of lights on the ceiling was almost another character in the show and were used with precision.
There are few things more wonderful to watch than a cast that truly seems to love being onstage and performing together; this group’s energy and joy was almost palpable. Kudos to director Marshall Pailet and the ATF for bringing us a show so full of life and bringing history alive for us in an innovative and electric production.
“Nikola Tesla Drops the Beat,” Adirondack Theatre Festival, Charles R. Wood Theater, 207 Glen St., Glens Falls, through July 1, $45-$34, Runtime: 2 hours and 30 minutes with a 15-minute intermission, atfestival.org